From the Blog

REFORM – A Digital Response

The digital investigation community is well aware of how technology has influenced traditional policing. As the digital age engulfs us, policing is having to react to a fast and ever-changing world where digital and cyber can be both an enemy and a friend.

Thursday 24 August 2017 saw a 46 page report released (not including bibliography) by the think-tank, Reform, about the subject entitled Bobbies on the net: a police workforce for the digital age’ – A copy of the full paper is available here.

The report focused on their conclusions from their research (both primary and secondary) about the future of policing in a digital landscape. Ten recommendations are made with claim that it it is the only way of of achieving policing in a digital age.

We simply had to respond.



Why are we responding now?

Firstly, as investigators we should seek to have as much information as possible before putting together our response to a report like this. So, we did exactly that!

We reached out across the community for your thoughts, opinions and feelings, and we have to thank many of you for interacting! Having considered all angles, we wanted to bring to you a balanced and measured response.

We also wanted our communication to coincide with our monthly newsletter as the messaging throughout this opinion piece is certainly supported by some of the other content launched this month. Take our latest piece on CryptoCurrencies as an example of work that is being undertaken to take complex digital subject matters and provide a platform for simple, concise learning of an area the majority of officers and staff would have little knowledge. If you want to receive more of these types of opinion pieces or be kept up to date with digital content, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.

However, as always we recognise that our opinions will not be consistent with those of others and that our take on this article cannot please everyone. We hope that this piece continues to promote further discussion and debate on what is a critical subject across our communities.


What did the Reform paper say?

The executive summary outlines the changing demand on policing, and identifies that the future holds both an increased demand and an array of as-yet unknown threats from technology. This is balanced against the potential opportunities and benefits to police of using emerging technology, with cited examples ranging from the adoption of body-worn video through to suggestions that officers could use augmented-reality glasses to overlay information on their view.

The report calls for police to extend their horizon scanning, looking at the threats much further into the future than is currently the case, and outlines ideas for reshaping the workforce with a massive recruitment of volunteers, and finally goes on to suggest some fundamental changes to the existing rank hierarchy.

After describing the huge impact of technology on policing capability and demand – not a new narrative by any means, but certainly worthy of reiteration – the executive summary to the Reform report concludes with ten recommendations:

  1. Home Office to create a £450m p/a grant for digital infrastructure, and invest in new digital policing companies;
  2. Improve police procurement channels to get better value on technology;
  3. Police forces to work with NPCC to look at expected demand in 15+ years, and better map the skills capability to meet it;
  4. Police forces to improve knowledge through apps & offline training;
  5. The creation of a Digital Academy, to graduate 1,700 officers & staff per year;
  6. Police forces to second a further 1,500 officers & staff per year to external partners, to acquire knowledge in the digital arena;
  7. Increase the number of cyber-volunteers from 40 to 12,000;
  8. Introduce a system of compulsory severance for officers who lack the skills to meet digital demand;
  9. Reduce the number of police ranks from 8 to 5;
  10. Home office to organise an annual hackathon-style convention, to allow police to join experts and other National bodies and share knowledge.

Beyond these headline recommendations, we feel it important to also pick out the following elements of the report to properly reflect its content:

  • The report refers to recent crime statistics to underline the premise that crimes with a digital element are on the increase, proportionate to ‘traditional’ crime.  It outlines the enormity of online fraud, and the assertion by the National Audit Office that it is overlooked by police forces.
  • There are suggestions for how the police could make better use of technology on the frontline, with solutions ranging from the already implemented (PNC access via an app), through to the very feasible (facial-recognition technology linked to national databases) ending with the currently-unrealistic and legislatively challenging (use of drones armed with facial recognition software).
  • The report cites the existence of a digital academy in Whitehall, offering training sessions in digital government, as a potential model for a policing Digital Academy, led by the Home Office, which would graduate around 1,700 cyber specialists per year.  It also points to the big reduction in police secondments since the turn of the millennium, and suggests that this downturn should be reversed and secondment opportunities be made available with tech giants.
  • In terms of the structure of police forces, the case is made for forces to follow examples set by Wiltshire Police and also police in Australia, to reduce the number of ranks.  The link to digital reform is identified by drawing comparisons with digital teams which are often characterised by a lack of hierarchy, enabling them to be more dynamic in their work.
  • The report closes with its recommendation for a ‘DEFCON-style’ hackathon convention, for police forces to come together and share knowledge and ideas in the digital space.


Mainstream & social media response

Naturally, some of the media has focused predominantly on the more draconian of these recommendations, chiefly the suggestion (or the interpretation) that non-digitally savvy officers ought to be sacked for their lack of IT skills.

Other media outlets relayed details of the report with a mostly neutral standpoint, choosing to factually outline the recommendations along with a few mildly disapproving quotes from critics. Reactions from subject matter experts varied from outright condemnation of the reports, through to constructive arguments as to why its content was either too radical or not radical enough to address the issues it raised.

Social media was naturally less forgiving, with the compulsory severance seeming to be unanimously unpopular on social media.  Unsurprisingly an awful lot of debate has focussed exclusively on this subject from the report which, we suggest, has neither done the report or its creators justice nor was ever their intention.

Overall, if we had to summarise the reaction of the community to the Reform report and recommendations in a couple of points then we would lead with the following themes:

  1. Acceptance that policing needs to improve on ‘digital’
  2. The recommendations are, for the most part, ill-considered and counter-productive



The Eagle has Landed!

For an in-depth examination of Reform’s report, take a look at this assessment and blog post from Nathan Constable and Emma Williams aptly entitled ‘The Eagle has Landed.’

In their work, it is testament to Nathan & Emma that they have deliberately avoided a knee-jerk reaction, and put together a calculated and considered response which thoroughly addresses and at times challenges both the good and bad elements of Reform’s publication. As Nathan himself says:

“I read it through once and was pretty stunned. I read it through again and it made me angry. On the third reading I realised I was sat with my jaw dropped and struggling to believe what I was actually reading.

I have wanted to blog about it since the first day but I have had to pause, stop, re-read, take notes, pause again and take a few deep breaths.” – Nathan Constable

Nathan and Emma examine issues such as the lack of richness in Reform’s references, points out that much of the report seems to be based on a cherry-picked selection of evidence, and considers the relative merits of the recommendations themselves.

Where Reform cites the statistic that almost half of all crime has a digital element, the blog counters that figures could also be used to show that only 17% of police demand is crime, and therefore ~8% of total demand is digital.

This led us to revisit our thinking and blog posted earlier this year of the impact of echo chambers and a risk of confirmation bias when it is recognised that statistics and big data could be used to prove any hypothesis.

“Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say” – William W. Watt

Scope of our response

As a team, we agreed that rather revisit some of the points already extensively debated elsewhere, we would instead focus on a response that is constructed with our community in mind… created by those and intended for those immersed in digital investigation and intelligence everyday.

Resultantly, there are a number of elements of the report that we will not be covering in this initial response. Not because as a team we do not believe that they do not deserve our attention or that we want to avoid them particularly but for a number of reasons including:

  • this post could be the length of a short novel if we were to attempt to cover everything,
  • many of these other areas have already been discussed since the release of the report in great detail, and
  • there are more credible subject matter experts who are better placed to discuss some of the recommendations.

Our response from here therefore focusses less on the strategic and political issues that have now been debated but more on the originality and feasibility of the technical and operational recommendations made in the report. After all, we spend each and every day as a team discussing how to build, maintain and support a police workforce in the volatile digital age.

That said, as a team who remain incredibly passionate about policing and have former colleagues, clients, family and friends across law enforcement organisations it would be remiss of us not to pass brief comment on the recommendation of compulsory severance.



Compulsory severance

The report states that ‘Senior managers, officers and staff argued that the ability to fire officers without the necessary skills would allow chiefs to get the skill base to meet digital demand and shift culture.’

Nathan, Emma and other members of our community have been quick to point out since the release of the report that ‘This report is written in isolation – it is a single-issue subject which links badly to other things’ and reinforce that even in the digital age there remains a vast amount of police work that requires little by means of digital skills or specialisms. Whilst some staff will undoubtedly need to increase their digital knowledge and capability, others will need other specialist training prioritised to perform effectively in their role.

Where it is deemed by policing organisations that new skills are required for certain roles then in addition to considered selection, policing itself carries a responsibility to invest adequately in the development of those resources. Often, the finger is pointed at individuals who have not developed their skills to meet the digital age but it is regularly the case that those staff members have never been provided guidance, time or investment to support that development.

As a team, over the last year we have delivered rapid, focussed digital awareness sessions to thousands of attendees across numerous forces which are going some way towards addressing the digital capability deficit. This lack of investment rather than lack of capability or willing is epitomised by senior leaders and frontline police officer who have left comments like those below:

“Loved this input but it was concerning how little I knew! Extremely personable trainers explaining a difficult subject and making sense of it. Very applicable to just about every area of modern day policing. I wish I had the opportunity to learn more”


“Most of the stuff we have spoken about today I was completely unaware of! I’d be more than willing to do a longer course as this stuff is absolute gold to officers on the ground.”


“As a person who is not up with technology the information given by the trainers was easy to understand and follow easily. I am amazed by the information that I can obtain from technology to assist my investigations. This is a must for all officers to learn.”

When it comes to new technologies and digital capabilities, there continues to be an overwhelming passion amongst police officers and staff to find ways to be more efficient and effective in serving the public.

Through our investigative support, training and products, at Blue Lights Digital we are incredibly humble and proud to have worked and continue to work with numerous uk policing organisations to respond to the challenges of policing in a digital age.

We continue to challenge ourselves to enhance our own knowledge and capabilities to support our drive to assist you in developing yours.

Well intended but missing the mark

The majority of the thought processes upon which many of the findings and recommendations are designed are sound and we believe well-intended. Nobody across policing or the public would argue with the very opening statement of the report which says ‘As crime changes, police forces must respond’.

Further to this, on first review many would not disagree with the sentiment behind what proved the most controversial recommendation of all in dismissing officers when it was stated that ‘All officers and police staff should have the rudimentary skills to use operational technology and should be aware of emerging digital trends.’

However we do have an issue with this statement. Whilst it is well intended, the latter element is guilty of being far too generalising. Sweeping statements like this struggle with credibility across the community with managers and subject matter experts across specialisms in areas that we train such as cyber crime, digital forensics, open source, communications data etc…

These SMEs will openly state that it is more than a full time job to perform their role whilst keeping up to date with current and emerging trends in an increasingly volatile digital environment in their individual disciplines alone. Full time Digital Media Investigators, who are expected to maintain currency (albeit at a shallower depth) across multiple digital disciplines than the individual subject matter experts, will concur that retaining currency in each field is almost impossible.

The point that has to hit home is that all of these individuals mentioned are in roles whereby it is their job to remain current in their field and yet even they struggle to do so.

This volatile digital age has created a drastically different knowledge and training environment and challenge for law enforcement agencies and sweeping statements about more training and currency of knowledge often fail to consider this issue.


Acknowledgement of the issue

It is often the case that reports such as this one can fail to recognise that the vast majority of officers and staff policing have already recognised the problem. We speak to senior leaders, management and frontline responders everyday and with confidence can say that the scale of the challenge is no longer under estimated when in comes to policing in a digital age!

However, even being as obsessed with digital as we are, we recognise that a police workforce for the digital age is not exclusively a digital workforce. Effective policing in a digital age requires a balance of new and emerging digital capabilities working in parallel with traditional policing capabilities to support each other in doing what each does best without any expectation or desire for one to undertake the responsibilities of the other.

There are many other ‘teamwork’ parallels we could draw here but in training, we use the famous scene from the James Bond movie Skyfall to epitomise this approach and draw references to digital policing throughout the scene. Policing, like Bond, may need the support of subject matter experts to succeed when challenged. Conversely, an expert working alone or surrounded exclusively by other likeminded subject matter experts with specific skills cannot alone meet the diverse challenges and services organisations face.

Good police work and investigation requires an array of skills and a base of knowledge besides digital. The great police officers, the excellent investigators – they are already there and there is many of them doing great work, traditional and digital, everyday. Rather than focus exclusively on digital, efforts should be focused on getting the right people into the right roles, and then backing that up by getting them the right tools and the right training for the role they are being asked to perform.

Where enhanced capability is needed, as an organisation who train law enforcement delegates every week in emerging digital capabilities, trust us when we say that it is entirely possible to invest astutely to make great police officers and staff good at digital policing. From our experience, it is a harder task which requires further investment to take a large group of digital natives or IT experts then give them the knowledge and make them reasonably good at all of the other skills the best investigators possess. Even when that is achieved, there is still an experience deficit to address.

We are already in a digital age. The policing workforce in the digital age is 95% constructed of many of the amazing people we have now across policing. Let’s not give up on them without properly investing in them.


Recognition of existing work

The report somewhat fails to recognise or underestimates the existing significant and commendable work being undertaken by forces and individuals at a local, regional and national level.

It is recognised and accepted that in reality, UK law enforcement agencies were late to the party when it came to digital policing. This may not be a fair assessment of specialist capability where the UK has been and often still is seen as an international lead for investigating complex crime but is abundantly apparent when it comes to the delivery a capable mainstream response to complex digital cases and evidence.

Nothing can be done to change the past but it can be learnt from. And it has. Even in a challenging policing environment of ever-tightening resources and ever-increasing demand (both digital and otherwise), most police forces are embracing change and bringing technology into their core business at every opportunity to do so.

In the Reform report, significant work strands, programmes and innovations across the country are not referenced at all and resultantly, many of the headline recommended solutions are already significantly advanced and deployed. Where they are not yet operational, they are often part of a wider national strategy underpinned by a solid evidence base and ongoing testing and validation. Examples include:


Mobile Apps

Reform recommends that ‘forces should improve digital understanding through learning apps’ and goes into further detail outlining that ‘A force could lead the development of an app, to be shared across the country – constantly updating it based on new concerns and demand.’ This ‘simple’ initiative and statement cause concern as the focus is on app development and not on the user stories and functionality or service required beyond this.

It is fair to say that the development of this app is quick, cheap and easy in principle. However what is not considered is the level of resourcing, horizon scanning, content creation and verification that goes into supporting such a solution. We should know… Blue Lights Discovery is deployed across a number of forces specifically to address this challenge and event with our diverse team of subject matter experts, trainers, animators and developers this is incredibly resource intensive to achieve.

This is realised across policing where forces are turning to Blue Lights Discovery having openly disclosed that they have tried and failed to deliver continual updates to force intranet pages meaning internal solutions have quickly become outdated and therefore losing both their credibility and benefit.


National Conference

At the close of the report, there is a recommendation for ‘a national convention on the lines of DEF CON in the USA to provide a space for law-enforcement officials to develop new approaches, learn about threats and disseminate information.’

Awesome idea, and one we would certainly support. Only… we already do! Each year, a leading international seminar is hosted in the UK with attendance from almost every UK Law Enforcement Agency and many leading international partners.

The event gears up for its 11th year in 2018 and gets bigger with every event. Next year it will deliver wider training opportunities and covering a more diverse range than has ever been achieved previously with a key principle of the event the forging of international relationships, knowledge sharing and operational capability.

Again in 2018, this event will host the 2nd Annual International Digital Investigation and Intelligence Awards which itself sees a significant number of leading international and UK stakeholders come together to recognise and share examples of cutting edge responses to digital and cyber crime.

“I thought the award ceremony was fabulous; incredible work by incredible people was celebrated and shared. It will lead to improved linkages nationally and I have no doubt that this will, in addition to our other initiatives, help us to continue to reduce harm and save lives. I look forward to attending next year!” – Senior Home Office Representative

There are many further examples that could be given here too in terms of existing initiatives that are not considered or even mentioned including current programmes of funding such as Crystallise under the Digital Investigation and Intelligence Portfolio which must be given time to pilot, test and validate new initiatives.


Digital is not a single issue or answer

The report and its findings are sometimes guilty, as is too often the case, of generalising ‘digital’ into a single issue – something that we are quick to point out on regular occasions.

Police use of technology can range from leveraging social media for community engagement, through the use of drones to search rural areas for missing people, to the building of improved IT infrastructure in order to better share information among agencies.

Technology’s impact on the police is even more diverse, with consideration needed for ‘new’ threats such as hacking and cyber-attacks, the use of technology by criminals to engage in traditional crimes such as fraud and conspiracies, and the swathes of digital evidence left in the wake of even the most low-tech of criminal offences.

All of the above are often rolled into ‘digital’, but generalising to this extent dilutes the meaning of any sentiment that the police need to ‘get better at digital’.

This can also be applied into individual digital disciplines or technologies where we have seen failure time and time (and time) again to recognise that different roles must be treated differently. One size fits all solutions, implemented to address a recognised capability deficiency, regularly fail to deliver the end to end operational benefit needed as it fails to consider a required tiered approach.

If we choose a technology such as CryptoCurrencies and its use in cyber crime as an example, it becomes abundantly apparent that a single, sweeping solution does not work as each individual role within the end to end criminal justice process requires a vastly different skillset to effectively perform their role. For example, a victim of ransomware contacts the police stating that there is a demand for payment in Bitcoin on their device:

  1. Control Room Operator – Need to be able to quickly identify a legitimate attack then capture the demand, be able to communicate in simple terms the technology and advise a non-technical victim the impact of paying the ransom or otherwise.
  2. First Responder – A working knowledge to know what actions to take if the victim has already paid the ransom demand, capture evidence from the device, identify immediate investigative opportunities, work to identify the originating source, isolate the device, etc…
  3. Investigator – A detailed knowledge of how Bitcoin (& other CrytpoCurrencies) work and how they can be investigated. How to progress investigations from the opportunities identified by first responders and how to potentially conduct in depth analysis of the blockchain to provide leads.

We could keep going. In the policing family alone, different knowledge again would be needed for Cyber Crime prevent and protect officers and staff, SIOs, case workers and disclosure officers. Beyond policing, further knowledge is needed in partner agencies to spot the signs of potential cyber crime offenders or vulnerable victims and the CPS and judiciary require different training again to effectively perform their roles in a digital age.


Effective policing in a digital age is a top to bottom challenge where everyone has to play their role. With effective self service, call handling and first responders, digital evidence and opportunities can be used to assist investigations and also as reliable evidence. Targeted, objective led acquisition and analysis of digital intelligence and evidence keeps volumes of data under control increasing the likelihood of swift criminal justice outcomes.

These approaches enable digital subject matter experts to have the best opportunity to maximise lawful exploitation of digital devices and services which is crucial in delivering an effective end to end response.

However, when digital intelligence and evidence is not handled appropriately, key opportunities can be lost – never to be recovered – which can compromise critical evidence and have a devastating impact on investigative outcomes. This awareness and a focused digital mindset is beginning to filter through across a number of forces following investment in specialist triage roles and immersive, hands on training days.

In our training design, we recognise the roles each different discipline plays in successfully responding to digital and cyber crime and as trainers have to be dynamic enough to adapt the needs of different roles and knowledge levels present with each delivery.


Distinct lack of anything revolutionary… at all!

Despite the debates that have played out since the release of the report, the mainstream media coverage that created front page and banner headlines, the social media response and every single word that has come before this one in this post… We could not help feel somewhat underwhelmed by the report and its recommendations that would deliver ‘a radical upgrading of crime-fighting capabilities.’

If this is really what the report is seeking to achieve then in honesty, we are left initially asking the following questions:

Does the report really go far enough in its research and recommendations?

Would immediate implementation (ignoring feasibility) of the ten recommendations made genuinely deliver radical upgrading of crime-fighting capabilities?

The simple answer in our opinion to these questions is that it is unlikely and there are a huge number of reasons this is the case. Many of these are covered above and further to this, we could commit another huge amount of writing undertaking a technical tear down of each recommendation.

One such example is the recommended increase of cyber-volunteers from 40 to 12,000 which is fraught with issues. It is important to say that we work with and have witnessed a number of extraordinarily talented volunteers across policing who deliver significant benefits and skillsets that may otherwise not be attainable.

But… basing this recommendation on simple multiplied statistics of Estonia’s reserve force model is a problematical concept as it again generalises ‘digital’ and ‘experts’ into a single capability and discipline which it certainly is not. Increased IT security professionals and their individual digital skills would undoubtedly deliver increased capability in some areas of policing however we can’t honestly say that it would effectively address critical areas such as effective communications data analysis or the correct recording and evidencing of open-source intelligence.

At Blue Lights Digital, we are supporters of the National Cyber Specials and Cyber Volunteers scheme (not mentioned by the report) and are great believers in its vision and the benefits it may deliver. But this scheme has been a long time in the making. It is certainly a result of this paper not will its evidence based direction be influenced by it. This led us to ask another question:

Does the report really recommend anything revolutionary… at all?

As a team of innovators who are continually working to remain at the cutting edge of technology working to identify and exploit the risks, threats and opportunities available from each new device , solution or service… we could not help but think there was a distinct lack of innovation.

When you work through the list of recommendations, we believe it accurate to say that each recommendation which focusses on digital capability (rather than political changes to policing) has either been recommended before or is already underway.

In addition to those that we have already discussed:

  • Provide PNC information via an app – This has already been delivered in some forces and is well underway in others across different mobile platforms.
  • Forces should improve digital understanding through learning apps – Solutions including our own are being piloted by local forces or regional initiatives. The suggestion that the ‘Police Transformation Fund could cover the costs of app development’ overlooks the fact that one solution referenced was funded by a previously successful bid.
  • Forces should improve digital understanding through offline training – Numerous forces have been working with internal subject matter experts and external providers such as ourselves to get their staff trained in a wide range of skills related to digital evidence and cyber investigation. Often the desire for further training is evident but support in abstraction and investment is not.
  • An annual hackathon-style convention to meet the new frontline of crime – Such events are now common place across public sector organisations and even regularly take place with the specific objective to deliver increased digital and cyber capability. Hackathon events aimed at delivering digital advances in policing date back to at least 2012 and so would not be deemed revolutionary. If it is to take place, policing must deliver methods of rapidly progressing innovations with the support of procurement channels which have previously precluded such activity.

In summary, whilst some recommendations have been deemed to be controversial, the majority of suggestions and recommendations in the report are hardly revolutionary.

Each of the solutions recommended in the report that are worthy of support, realistically attainable and well-though out are, in fact, already underway or are in a developed pipeline for delivery.

Closing thoughts

This report, whether you agree with its recommendations or not, has ultimately served to encourage conversation of the future of policing as it strives to retain efficiency, effectiveness and legitimacy in a digital age.

To that end, it has served its purpose and further discussion, awareness of innovation, solution development and knowledge sharing may be achieved as a result purely of its publication. This is a good thing and worth recognising.

In response to the report, of course there is a need for policing to develop enhanced capabilities, nobody is questioning this but… at what cost and sacrifice? The Reform paper concludes with a final paragraph which states:

The recommendations set out in this paper aim to deliver a digital police service,  it to meet the digital demands of today and the future. Police officers and staff  should embrace these changes to build productive and motivated teams capable of protecting citizens from digital threats.

This is the only way to police an ever-changing world.

That last sentence cannot be ignored whichever way you read it. It is an incredibly bold way to close the work given the controversial, whilst un-revolutionary recommendations that are made within the report.

We think therefore it is appropriate one final time to reference Nathan Constable and end this piece with an equally challenging statement that closes both blogs:

It isn’t the “only way” – there are many other ways.

At Blue Lights Digital, we have been proud to work police forces to directly address the challenge of policing in a digital age. Whichever is the appropriate ‘way’ to progress, our team will continue to be here to assist whenever and at whatever time we are called upon to do so.


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